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I Used To Wear Perfume Every Day

But the anti-fragrance crowd has grown increasingly vocal.

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Seven Perfume bottles on a gradient blue to yellow background
Armin Zogbaum/Gallery Stock
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I used to wear fragrance every day, but now, the dozen or so bottles on my bureau collect dust. I pick one up and notice the liquid is cloudy. When I spray it into the air, it smells off and slightly stale, so I toss it in the trash. I content myself with shower gel and body lotion because the scents lie safely hidden under my clothing.

But before I apply even the tiniest bit of fragrance, I think about whom I might see that is allergic or would be otherwise offended.

As a child, I associated fragrance with being loved. My grandfather would scoop me up in his arms and I would kiss his freshly shaven cheek, breathing in the smell of Old Spice or Aqua Velva. I remember the glass perfume bottles with their soft puffy atomizers lined up on a mirrored tray on my grandmother’s dressing table. She would let me putter around in her bedroom, trying on the hats she wore to church and dabbing my cheeks with her rouge. I was thrilled when she would spray me with a Lily-of-the-Valley cologne, or — on rare occasions — her treasured Chanel No. 5.

I would twirl and dance in front of the mirror, because wearing perfume made me feel lithe and pretty, when in reality, I was an overweight and dorky kid.

My mother wore the Coty and Faberge fragrances of the 1960s — L’'Origan, Emeraude, and Woodhue. At Christmas, I would shop for her favorite perfume sets at the local drugstore, choosing among the brightly decorated packages that usually contained a round cardboard container of dusting powder along with the spray bottle.

I came of age in the era of soft-focus commercials where a handsome man wistfully tells his beautiful girlfriend, “Your Windsong stays on my mind.” Perfume meant romance and, to a lesser degree, sex.

As a teen, I wore Charlie and Love’s Baby Soft, and in the summer slathered myself with Jean Nate. My high school boyfriend wore a Brut-fragranced deodorant that clung to his polyester shirts, and which I will forever associate it with making out in his darkened basement. His Youth Dew-drenched mother would call down the steps, “Everything all right down there? Why don’t you two come up for cookies, now.”

In the early 1990s, when I was skulking around looking for another husband, I wore Perry Ellis 360, which somehow made me feel like it was okay to be starting over again at 35.

Now, in so many places, perfume offends. As choral singers, we are forbidden to wear any kind of fragrance for rehearsals or performances. Indeed, it gotten to the point where I’m almost afraid to wear fragrance anywhere.

As the never-perfume crowd becomes increasingly vocal, those of us who still enjoy wearing perfume are regarded as just slightly less offensive than smokers. There is a church in my community whose members wanted to reserve certain pews in the back exclusively for fragrance-wearers.

One of my friends wrote a scathing email to a grocery store chain because she claimed the cinnamon-scented pine cones in their entryways gave her severe headaches. Another friend comes to my home and immediately removes any plug-in room fresheners if I didn’t pull them before she arrived. Scented candles burning anywhere in the house also must be extinguished. She says that fragrance of any kind makes her “close up.”

I show up at church wearing just a tiny bit of Dolce and Gabbana's Light Blue, and one of the other altos in the choir immediately starts rummaging through her purse for her inhaler. Go for a medical appointment and discreet signs are placed on the examining room doors thanking patients for not wearing fragrance. If one of my friends steps into a shop with any kind of potpourri in the air, she immediately turns around and leaves.

No one wants to inhale clouds of overpowering scent, especially in an elevator or other tight spaces. I wear fragrance in minuscule amounts as a form of personal expression — it helps me tell my story and makes me feel clean and ready to face the world.

I understand there are those with allergies severe enough to warrant living a fragrance-free life, and they certainly deserve respectful consideration. However, most of us are not going to require medical attention after a brief whiff of cologne or room freshener, so I don’t understand why it’s necessary to rope off church pews and respond with such vehemence to what is, at most, a minor annoyance and, for many of us, a sensory pleasure.

Perhaps it’s one more excuse to keep our distance from each other, to prevent us from an embrace or the warm clasp of another’s hand, even when that may be what’s desperately needed. Smell is one of our most evocative senses; it connects us to times and places in our lives in a far more physical and concrete sense than a picture. We live in increasingly isolated cocoons where the convenience of technology has eliminated touching the fabric, trying on the shoes, and sniffing the candle. Few department stores still exist, so we no longer stroll past cosmetics counters with clerks wielding spray bottles of the latest fragrance.

We keep ourselves to ourselves, in constant fear of offending with words, touch or even scent. We’re meeting friends for dinner this weekend, and I’ll probably wear Philosophy’s latest version of Amazing Grace, called Magnolia. I smelled it in a magazine last spring, and it reminded me of the tree that bloomed outside my childhood bedroom window, so I had to have it. To my knowledge none of these dinner companion friends don't have allergies, and we’ll probably eat outside — so it won’t really matter. Besides, when I spray it on, I’ll feel less like the overweight and dorky 62-year-old woman I am now and more like that little girl in my grandmother’s mirror, whirling in a magical cloud of fragrance.